From Innocent to Veteran
This is a fictionalized account of a true story. Names* have been changed where necessary to protect individual’s privacy. The information contained within is as true as I can make it, given that it did not happen to me. The tales were told to me by Sam White* himself.
Sam White didn’t always want to be a photographer, but then he wasn’t sure just what he wanted.
Not having many job prospects beyond manual labor when he graduated from high school, Sam got sweet talked into the U.S. Navy by a smooth operator of a recruiter. The recruiter promised a girl in every port and barely enough time to rest in between ports. It sounded like a dream job to Sam.
Drinking beer and chasing women filled his thoughts and free time throughout navy basic training. It was pretty much like his high school years, only with more money and some status as a military man. Not that being a sailor opened doors for him, but it did give him an identity.
Of the choices offered to him as he prepared to complete basic training, photography sounded like a better job than being a cook or engineman to him. It was certainly less physical and you would get to see the outside world more than the other swabbies stuck below decks.
Sam did well at photography school and finished at the top of his class, earning him his Photographer’s Mate designation and a step up in rank at graduation. Earning that designation put him in line to be promoted again if he did well at his first duty station. That was the story given to him by his head instructor at school, who encouraged Sam to immediately volunteer for sea duty. That was the real key to success he told him.
Full of plans to be promoted to Chief Photographer’s Mate by the time he was twenty-one (less than two years away), Sam filled out his request for sea duty and was sent to the U.S.S. Mister Rogers* right after graduation. He was on his way up the ranks; he was sure of that.
The number two in his class went to shore duty in beautiful Hawaii, the most sought after assignment in the navy. Number three also got shore duty, but in exotic Yokosuka, Japan. All of the rest of his classmates went to sea duty on various ships.
Sam spent a lot of time thinking about how much either classmate number two or number three had paid the instructor to convince him (Sam) to ask for sea duty, thus moving them up to the choice they wanted. He even talked to himself out loud about it when he was swabbing the decks of the photo lab or the adjoining passageway.
When test time came around, Sam proved himself capable and “sewed on” (got promoted to) Photographer’s Mate 3rd class. PH3 White had become a naval Petty Officer and once again had a spring in his step. There was now someone else to push that mop around as he took on more responsibility.
Flight operations aboard an aircraft carrier were always dangerous and everything that happens is filmed by either video camera or still photography. PH3 White had proven himself adept at running the flight deck camera and captured many critical images of aviation problems and accidents.
He had once filmed the wheel of a fighter aircraft coming off during a bad landing and had it (the wheel) take the camera tripod right out from under his camera while he continued to roll with the camera in his hands. Those images were extremely useful in solving problems and briefing aircrews.
Armed with shining recommendations from his superiors, he once again took his rating exams and advanced to Photographer’s Mate 2nd class. That latest success nearly got him booted out of his job as he (along with friends) made some celebratory “hooch” from alcohol and other items in the photo lab.
After drunkenly serenading some senior officers in only hula skirts and their sailor hats while underway from Hawaii to Japan, Sam and his friends were placed in custody until they sobered up and then faced the captain for punishment. They were all docked a month’s pay and would not be allowed liberty in Japan. Sam was also given extra duty (like high school detention, only with chores) because he was the senior person involved.
That cruise with Admiral in charge of the 7th Fleet aboard proved to be a problem for many of the crew and by the time they reach the “land of the rising sun” the entire floating city was restricted to the ship. Many of the senior ship’s company tried to intercede for at least a couple of days of liberty, but the Admiral wouldn’t budge.
There is a saying that bad things happen to those without compassion.
The Admiral traveled with his own personal military Cadillac sedan stored on the ship in the hangar bay. His aide had sailors assigned to wash and wax it at least once a week and then cover it back up with its fitted car cover. It was said to smell like expensive Cuban cigars and single-malt whiskey inside. When the car was uncovered to be cleaned and polished, the Admiral insisted that his flags be displayed on the fenders. They even had wires in them so they would stand out and show the star.
The entire crew hated that car. It was a symbol of everything that they couldn’t have being flaunted in their faces.
What happened next was only natural given the fact that the ship was on its way to extended sea duty and this was their last chance at a liberty before the grind began in earnest. From the captain to the lowest seaman they were all frustrated and upset.
Sam was scrubbing floors (extra duty) with a Marine guard watching him when the event took place, or it would have been easy to point the finger at him for what happened. It was still believed, and told in whispers behind closed doors, that he engineered the whole thing. He had a reputation for being creative like that.
A naval vessel is never really idle, even when parked in a port. The flight deck crew was doing drills and working on a forward catapult. The catapult (or cat) is a steam powered device used to help aircraft reach speed sufficient to fly off of the flight deck. Without the boost from the catapult, airplanes would drop off the end of the ship into the water.
When they test fire the cat it is done either in a no-load, or loaded status, meaning that it either has no weight to move, or weight equal to a particular aircraft type. Like a firearm, it is generally not seen as a good thing to dry fire it (no bullet in the cylinder). To that end “dummy loads” are made up with equivalent weights for the aircraft aboard. We could spend a lot of time discussing dead weight vs. rolling weight and representative equivalents, but rest assured that they knew what they were doing.
On that day the number 1 cat had been taken all the way down (disassembled) for a new steam cylinder installation and that always required firing at least one dummy load to recertify it as safe for real aircraft launches. During the early morning hours the dummy load had been prepared and while it was still dark it had been moved to the elevator just forward of the island. That elevator was still in the down position making it level with the hangar bay.
At approximately 08:00 with great fanfare (and certainly numerous one finger salutes) the admiral accompanied by his aide and the ship’s captain departed for meetings on the base. That these “meetings” would be full of fine food, quality drink, and most likely pretty girls, was not lost on anyone stuck aboard.
The Executive Officer, the Navigator and CAG 9 (commander of the embarked airwing) announced over the ship’s 1MC (P.A. system) that all department heads would meet in the officer’s mess for a working breakfast at 09:00. The ship’s “Chief of the boat” (or senior enlisted man aboard), broadcast a similar meeting for all ship and airwing department Master Chief Petty Officers to meet in the Chief’s mess, also at 09:00.
Next up was the Flight Deck officer announcing an “all available hands” F.O.D. (foreign object debris) walk down on the flight deck. That would normally only be done in the case of flight operations, which were not scheduled as far as anyone knew. But, being sailors, they just grumbled and did as they were told. Men poured onto the flight deck from every hatch (door) and ladder (stairs.)
Meanwhile “forces unknown” were busy in the hangar bay preparing the dummy load for its ride up the elevator and subsequent flight through the air. By 08:45 the flight deck was full of sailors walking around looking for a stray piece of anything and finding very little.
The announcing system once again sounded asking the men to remain on the flight deck, but clear of catapult #1 for the test firing. The deck crew brought the large covered mass off of the elevator and using one of their yellow tugs, dragged the palletized load into position on cat 1 and hooked it up.
Since there was little else to do and it was nice outside, the sailors moved forward on the flight deck to watch the show. As the checklist was run between the flight deck crew and the operators below, the person on the P.A. system gave time updates, which in itself was odd.
At 09:00 on the mark the call came to stand clear of catapult #1 and then a second announcement of “maximum power, all eyes on cat 1!”
With a rush of steam and the thumping sound of the catapult firing, the load very quickly went forward and into the air. Instantly there were thunderous cheers from everyone on the flight deck, and then the yelling from the rest of the crew below decks was heard throughout the ship. Those on deck had a front row seat, while those below decks watched on the ship’s TV.
The fact that they set a new distance record with that shot was barely noted, indeed almost forgotten. The odd circumstance of having a tarp secured to tie downs and remaining behind when the load fired off was brushed aside completely.
Nothing known to man could have been better, or sweeter, to that crew than the sight of the admiral’s Cadillac sedan flying through the air as it sailed far out into the blue water of the bay.
The cheering went on for several minutes on the flight deck and the camera operator ran the video over and over on the ship’s TV. That few seconds was undoubtedly the happiest moment of the cruise so far. The only thing better would be homecoming, and that was many months away.
When the admiral returned and learned the fate of his beloved car he was apoplectic. He tried to scream at his orderly and could only squeak such was his rage. The ship’s doctor was called to stand by, in case of a stroke. Those within view said that they had never seen anyone turn that particular shade of purple before, and that the man tried to speak but could only spit and drool on himself.
The prepared dummy load was found “parked” in the same spot as the admiral’s sedan usually occupied. When the cover that normally protected the automobile was pulled off, the flags that traditionally adorned the car’s fenders popped up (via springs) into full salute.
There was an investigation conducted to be sure, but everyone with any authority was in a meeting and didn’t know anything about the launch. Everyone else seemed to have been on deck, except for PH2 White and his Marine watch dog. To a man nobody knew anything.
The crew stuck to their stories and since A) The admiral wasn’t really supposed to have a personal automobile aboard and B) There wasn’t anything he could do to them. The cruise went on as planned.
Newly elected President John F. Kennedy was still holding to the idea that the puppet South Vietnamese Head of State Ngo Dinh Diem, would have to defeat the communists on his own. Kennedy had too many irons in the fire to add solving Viet Nam’s internal strife to the list, but he also feared what was called the domino effect if he did nothing. The domino effect stated that if Viet Nam “fell” to communism all of the surrounding countries would as well.
At the time of this story, Diem who was a fanatical Catholic, and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was head of the secret police, were busy killing off Buddhists and destroying their temples. He believed that only Catholics would truly resist the communists. The problem was that the vast majority of both North and South Viet Nam were Buddhists. It was these murderous attacks more than any political agenda from the communists that created the NLF (National Liberation Front) aka the Viet Cong.
In May of 1961 Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Saigon and made the famous enthusiastic statement that Diem was the “Winston Churchill of Asia.” This convinced the people of Viet Nam that America supported and condoned the murderous activities of Diem.
When asked later why he said that about Diem, someone that they all considered weak and ineffective, LBJ said “He’s the only boy we got out there.”
Immediately following V.P. Johnson’s visit the clandestine insertion of “flood relief” and “aid workers” tripled. The promise of military and financial aid had been made but officially the U.S.A. was still side-stepping direct involvement. Everyone knew that the situation was about to change.
After leaving Japan the top brass didn’t identify Viet Nam as a destination for the carrier battle group (aircraft carriers don’t go anywhere alone), just putting out a generic “Westpac” (Western Pacific ocean) on the itinerary. The feeling was that they didn’t want to call attention to the American war ships lurking off of the Vietnamese coastline.
Mekong Delta and the easy boat ride
The south (there are two: north, and south) monsoon season was just ending in the southern end of Viet Nam and the days were hot and sticky, but the sun was out most of the time. During the rainy time there could be get ten inches of rain or more in a single day making life miserable for those who wanted to be dry. Ph2 Sam White liked to be dry. In fact, he liked to be clean and dry; it was one of his favorite things in life.
When they had crossed the equator and did the famous “Shellback” initiation, conducted by none other than “Davy Jones” himself, his PHC (Chief Photographer’s Mate) had made it a point to make Sam crawl through the nastiest and most vile concoctions he could find. Sam took three showers after the ceremonies were over and then wiped himself down with alcohol from the photo lab.
There was great debate as to why PH2 White drew the assignment to go on the boat ride up the Mekong River. Some said that it was because he was the best man for the job… others believed that it was because his chief knew that he would get hot, sweaty, and indescribably filthy on the trip.
The mission was supposed to be a piece of cake; just a simple boat ride up the Mekong River to photograph the power plants for “flood control” assessment. It was all in keeping with the stories in the international media (written by the U.S. State Department) about helping with flood relief for victims of the huge monsoonal flow of water that had inundated the area.
Sam saw the task as a way to get off of the ship for a little while and see something besides grey walls. He gladly accepted the job when he was volunteered by his PHC. That was the way things were done in the navy, you could voluntarily go along with assignments… or you could do them anyway.
A young Ensign from Naval Intelligence came to the photo lab right away to get Sam and handed the chief a written order that said for the duration of the mission PH2 White belonged to them. That put the chief in a bad mood as it meant that he would have to fill in wherever his petty officer had been scheduled to work. He hadn’t planned on his underling being gone for more than a day when he volunteered him. Who will eventually get the last laugh remains to be seen.
The briefing for the mission wasn’t exactly like what the PHC had said. Sam was briefed by several enlisted men and a few different officers who each seemed to have a specialty. He was allowed to take notes during the briefings, but those notes would not be making the trip with him; they were classified.
The bottom line was that he was to photograph anything of a military or industrial nature, including any power plants, but to even include such things as overhead power lines where there was no plant. It had become clear that the navy (and others) wanted a ground level view of everything on the Mekong River.
Petty Officer White was coached each day on his role as an assistant for flood relief operations whose job was to photograph the power plants to assess them for flood protection. He was told to forget any words of Vietnamese that he might have picked up and when in doubt play dumb. Sam waited for a few seconds expecting to hear his chief’s voice say that he wouldn’t be “playing” dumb, but of course it didn’t happen, the man wasn’t in the room.
To continue his cover story and not draw any more attention to the aircraft carrier than possible, he would be flown by helicopter from the ship to the area of Soc Trang during the pre-dawn hours. From there he would be taken by local fishermen (really ARVN soldiers in civilian clothes) in native fishing boats up river to Can Tho.
At Can Tho he would switch to a transport truck and be driven to Vinh Long where he would meet BMC (Chief Boatswain’s Mate) Black and his crew at the main channel of the Mekong River. Chief Black usually had a crew of five ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) aboard his converted sport fishing boat.
Chief Black was also really a Navy Seal working on missions of his own and Sam was cautioned not to ask him any questions about what he was really doing there. Their joint objective was to get through the Hong Ngu District and briefly cross the border into Cambodia, and return. Extraction point at the end of the mission was Bien Hoa airport near Saigon. Chief Black would get him there, somehow.
Departure day arrived quickly and Sam was glad. It meant that they would quit giving him shots for this disease or that fever and there wouldn’t be any more tests to take regarding briefing materials. He was ready to go in his own flight deck gear fifteen minutes before show time.
This was supposed to be a simple run on fast boats and with few stops to make along the way. It would only be forty miles by native boat, twenty miles by truck and then another eighty on a fast boat. Of course, Sam was thinking American speed boats and trucks, and had no idea about “Asian time.”
The big ship had arranged to be close to the shoreline at departure time to cut down the flight time and distance. When the helicopter launched it rapidly dropped down to the surface of the water from the height of the flight deck. That reminded PH2 White that he really should have gone to the head (bathroom) one more time before take-off.
A fast thirty minute flight (that seemed to be low enough to pull water-skiers) had them flying over the coastal fishing fleet and then “feet dry” (over dry land) in no time. The crewman flying with him kept his goggles on and his hands on his machine gun, even though the door was closed to hide the weapon.
Sam had been told that there would be many people reporting their flight and if he delayed at the airport he would be approached by government officials or even the NLF. Everyone would want to know what he was doing there and detain him until someone told them what to do. He was not to hesitate.
The naval intelligence guys had given him an additional camera for night shots, which made a total of three in his borrowed army backpack, along with waterproof bags and film. He wasn’t sure why they had insisted on extra socks and antifungal ointments along with boots, fatigues and field jacket he had been given by the Marine detachment aboard his ship. This was just supposed to be a fast run on a fast boat and then he was out of there!
The helicopter barely slowed down to let him out before they took off and flew farther inland before turning towards Saigon and from there back to the ship. Sam supposed that they didn’t want to help anyone pinpoint where they might have dropped him off, assuming that anyone would think that.
The monsoon might be in its waning days but it still had some water to drop, as he found out half way to the nearest shelter. He had not seen it rain so hard since he was in south Florida. Visibility was less than ten feet, which was a good thing as two soldiers walked out to where he had just stepped off the helicopter. They had their heads down and missed the decidedly white Sam White, as he ducked into a shed.
After the soldiers made a half-hearted (and thoroughly wet) look around the pavement they went around the building out of sight. Sam took the opportunity to quickly walk the other direction and caught a ride on a passing delivery truck. He wasn't sure where it was that he had been dropped off, it certainly wasn't the airport, but he was sure that it wasn't safe there.
He spotted the river during a short break in the rain and banged on the side of the truck to be let out. There tied to a stick jammed into the bank was the fishing boat with two men waiting for him as planned. Sam was proud of himself for making his first connection and avoiding detention. This mission was quite the thrill so far.
He spotted the river during a short break in the rain and banged on the side of the truck to be let out. There tied to a stick jammed into the bank was the fishing boat with two men waiting for him as planned. Sam was proud of himself for making his first connection and avoiding detention. This mission was quite the thrill so far.
Once on the fishing boat and underway Sam had checked his gear to make sure that all was still dry and undamaged. It was all still safe and ready. He wished that he could say the same for himself. The rain had drenched him from under his hat to inside of his boots. His clothes were so wet that he felt like he was sitting in hot mud, and it was still morning. It would get hotter.
His guides spoke to each other but never made eye contact with Sam. He wondered if that was so they could say that they had never seen him. He desperately wanted to ask them when they were going to speed up as it seemed that they were only going at about a fast walk (4 mph). That rate would barely get them to Can Tho by nightfall. He was learning about Asian time the hard way. They would get there, when they got there.
Back at the ship the admiral had directed the captain to turn seaward and put some distance between them and the country of Viet Nam. He did not want to be the reason for any more international press coverage. It was said later that he expected the worst from the mission that young PH2 White had been sent on and never expected the man to return.
Sam made the decision to save the military ration chocolate bars for later and just share food with the Vietnamese men. Had he tasted those candy bars he would have traded them at the first opportunity. That way at least he would have gotten some revenge.
To say that the food of Southeast Asia can be hot is like saying that gasoline can catch on fire. The simple appearing meal of rice and fish with green and red “seasoning” that they willingly shared with the young photographer had “consequences.” The immediate short term effect was intense searing pain on his tongue and lips as the peppers burned his mouth. It was the second, long term problem that nearly did him in.
Sam wasn’t sure how long he rode with his butt hanging over the side of the boat as the explosions in his insides happened over and over again. He didn’t immediately catch on to what was going on when one of the men flipped the tail of his shirt over his very white posterior. He was flying the pale butt flag of an American, which anyone along the river would recognize as a foreigner.
Arriving at Can Tho around 18:00 they were met by two more ARVN soldiers driving what Sam understood to be a stolen truck. Those men were very insistent that they depart for Vinh Long immediately. He hoped with all of his remaining body fluids that the ride would not be bumpy.
As he tried to thank the men who brought him up the river he was grabbed and pulled into the truck by his new guides. Panic nearly consumed him at that point as he thought that he was on his way to interrogation for sure. Once they had sped away from the river he was told in Queen’s English that the men he had just left were NLF and were about to hand him over to their superiors. He once again felt the urge to be sick but held on and it passed.
Sam told the man sitting in the non-driving spot (he was in between them) that he had eaten food with the river men and he had been in distress ever since. The man reached into his bag on the floor of the truck and pulled out a piece of root of some kind. He said, “This will help you. Chew it up and then spit out rest.” Then he bit off a piece, took it out of his mouth and handed it to Sam. By then Sam was ready to die from the cure, rather than continue to suffer. To his surprise his problem was gone before he spit out the chewed up mass of root. He never did learn what that root was.
Once within sight of the river they drove parallel to it for a short distance until they spotted the converted sport fishing boat. They had Sam get out on the road and they kept going, again hoping to disguise his movements. He was able to say his thanks before he hopped down from the running board of the truck and nearly broke his ankle stepping into a pothole.
Chief Black looked like a grizzled old fisherman with his short grey beard and Greek fisherman’s cap. The hard steel gaze that met Sam’s eyes belied the soft voice that came from his mouth. He grabbed Sam’s bag and helped him aboard, while simultaneously calling to his crewman in Vietnamese to get underway.
As the young photographer looked around the boat in the fading light he could see .50 caliber machine guns mounted forward and aft, plus machine guns stowed on either side abeam the steering wheel. He began to worry that maybe this was going to be more of a challenge than he wanted.
Sam asked the chief if they were going to keep going up river as the darkness fell, noting that they couldn’t see anything. Chief Black then pulled a pair of Russian night vision goggles out of a cabinet and said that night was his favorite time as he could see everyone and they couldn’t see him.
There were only four ARVN crewmen aboard as the chief wanted his crew number to stay the same. Villagers and fishermen reported the number of people on his boat every time they saw it and adding an extra would arouse suspicion.
The chief had his first mate take Sam below to put camouflage paint on his face and hands, to hopefully help disguise him. They couldn’t do much to hide his 6’1” height and 180 pound frame, so he would have to go below when they encountered people.
They moved cautiously up river under the cover of darkness with a crewman on the bow, one on the stern and one each on the port and starboard sides. Chief Black said that he knew the river in this section and there was nothing to photograph so he suggested that Sam go below and sleep while he could.
That was where Sam was at 05:00 when the fire fight began.
The chatter of the 50 caliber gun going off above his head rolled the young man out of his bunk and onto the floor. It was fortuitous that he had reacted in that way as a round came through the hull of the boat and knocked the blanket roll that he had been using as a pillow off of the bunk. He most certainly would have been shot in the head had he not moved.
The twin diesel engines roared as the chief pushed the throttle and spun the boat to the opposite bank and then quickly back down the river out of range. The boat had taken damage and would need repairs before they could try again.
Finding a side channel that looked good about thirty minutes downstream, they pulled in and assessed the damage. No one was hit, which was a great thing as far as Sam was concerned. He had survived his first fire fight and was scared and exhilarated at the same time. It was like the time when he rode a motorcycle off of a pier and realized that he wasn’t dead when he bobbed up in the ocean. His adrenalin was still pumping.
Chief Black barked orders to his crew in Vietnamese and had them scrambling all over the boat checking things and fixing holes that were low enough to possibly leak. The river was pretty high and fast with the monsoon drainage still running hard. He didn’t want to chance taking on water.
When all was in readiness on the boat, they stopped what they were doing long enough to eat a small cold meal. Two of the crewmen were gone for a few minutes going to the bathroom and looking for some kind of plant to either eat or use for medicine. Sam wasn’t sure.
Chief Black sat watching the men, the sky, the water and smoking his hand-rolled cigarette that smelled awful, until he felt that the time was right. Whatever he had been waiting for happened and he gave a couple of quick, gruff orders to the men. They pushed off and the diesels came to life.
Everyone was on full alert with weapons at the ready as they approached the place where they had been attacked earlier. Sam felt the need to go to the bathroom but doubted that he could get anything past his clenched butt cheeks if the opportunity to go presented itself. It was then that he realized that he was actually shaking.
As they passed by the farthest point they had yet attained on this journey Sam felt a sense of relief and said so out loud. That was one of those times where you think back and say, “I never should have said that; it jinxed everything.”
The words had barely cleared his lips when the engines began to sputter and cough.
The chief cussed and yelled to his first mate to take the helm while he checked the engines. For some reason the other, crewmen didn’t seem upset or even look back at what was going on. Sam thought that they must just be staying alert for an attack.
Before Chief Black could even get the engine housing open the motors conked out, causing a lot of excitement. More orders were barked out and the first mate spun the steering wheel bringing the craft around to go back south with the current.
Sam was told to grab a machine gun from storage and to watch the river bank on the starboard side. His instructions were to shoot anything that moved. They were really vulnerable as they drifted along without the power to get away or even maneuver.
Crawling back to his feet, the chief went quickly forward again and tapped the fuel gauge dial with his finger. It was sitting on zero. Flipping a toggle switch on the dashboard next to the gauge he again tapped the dial and got the same results… zero. Both of their fuel tanks were empty.
The boat drifted with the current and everyone maintained their positions of watchfulness while their leader continued to investigate why they had no fuel. Only he (Sam) seemed nervous, he thought, as he looked around.
Sam was sweating so much that he got dehydrated and nearly passed out. He didn’t even realize that he was thirsty. The older American told him to eat a couple of salt tablets and drink some water from his canteen. That helped a lot and he felt better.
The chief eventually found a puncture in one tank that he thought was a bullet hole. But, as he thought about it he changed his mind. “Bullets don’t make square holes” he said to himself. The discovery of a fuel line that was not only disconnected but routed so that it poured the fuel out through the back drain, made the old Seal see red.
Both tanks had drained into the muddy brown waters of the Mekong and the smell of diesel fuel had been masked by the ever present stink of the river. There was an automatic crossover between tanks to avoid running the engine dry and it had worked. The distance they had covered was on what they got from the leaking tanks together.
The river was running swiftly and there was no further incident as they drifted back to a place where they could get diesel fuel from a large farm that actually had a tractor. Most farms used either people power or had a water buffalo that they harnessed.
The farmer was not very trustful of the several 1 dong (currency of Viet Nam) coins that the American gave him for the fuel, as he was afraid that the government money wouldn’t be any good. The chief being an experienced horse trader brought out a good steel axe from the tool box on the boat and the old man was all smiles.
Sam saw that the navy man treated the elderly farmer with respect and that the farmer seemed to like him very much. He also noted that for some reason the ancient man would not even look at the boat crew. Again he figured that it was so he could say that he never saw anyone.
He said that he felt odd sitting exposed at that small dock out in the open, like everyone could see them and was reporting them as they sat there. He was no longer sure who they would report to, as he was not sure who the good guys and bad guys were any more. It was all very confusing.
Once again they found a side tributary to hide in and the chief cut a piece of wood to roughly fit the hole in the second tank and hammered it into place until it sealed the puncture completely. Then he had a crewman pump diesel from the 55 gallon drums into the tank with a hand crank device. He explained that the fuel would cause the piece of wood to swell inside of the tank and it would be locked into place and completely leak proof.
They decided to spend the night at that location and try again at first light the next morning. The Vietnamese men went ashore and made a fire to cook fish that they caught and smoke what smelled like hashish or something to Sam.
The old farmer had given Chief Black a cloth with some cheese and peppers and other vegetables that Sam didn’t recognize in it. He thought it odd that the old man had specified that it was for the chief and Sam only.
The young photographer wondered if they should be afraid to eat it, but trusted his leader with his life and so just followed the older man’s lead. The chief was kind enough to warn him away from the peppers which would have burned him up, again. Sweat poured from the Navy Seal’s head and face as he ate the hot morsels proclaiming how good they were. Sam was happy to pass them up still remembering the suffering he endured from the first meal he had in Viet Nam.
Sam was awakened by a nudge from the chief’s boot as he lay sleeping on the deck of the boat. It had been too hot to sleep below decks in the bunks, and he still had visions of that bullet knocking his pillow off the bed. He was just fine on the deck.
With the sun just beginning its climb into the sky and the chief confident that his fuel tanks were full, they once again powered out into the main stream. The chief had Sam take a turn at the wheel of the fast boat as they cruised at about half speed. He liked it and felt good about their day; everything was falling into place finally.
Chief Black made the rounds of the mounted weapons, checking that were loaded and ready and speaking with each crewman briefly. He wanted to be sure that none of them were still high from the previous night. The man seemed to Sam to be smiling more than usual. What he really didn’t understand was why that made him so nervous.
After they cleared the narrows where they attacked the first time the chief told Sam to see to his camera gear while he took over the helm and increased their speed. He felt that there could be photo opportunities a few miles ahead and wanted to be ready.
No one saw the log submerged just below the surface, or the green ropes or vines that held it in place, until after they hit it.
All four Vietnamese crewmen were thrown from the boat by the impact. The chief was knocked over the side but had a rope around his wrist which was tied to bulkhead next to the steering wheel. Sam had been standing in the cabin below decks facing aft towards the opening and was thrown towards the bow.
Everything happened in a split second but seemed like slow motion to Sam. He was trying to get up when the second bump hit as the boat went over the log and struck the propellers. That jolt sent him face first into the ladder coming down from the main deck. Once more he got to his feet and was dizzy but recovering.
As the fog cleared he had an image stuck in his head of the crewman at the rear machine gun standing on the rear wall of the boat and jumping off right before the first impact. He couldn’t make any sense of it and kept shaking his head trying to clear it out.
Sam and Chief Black made it back to the main deck of the boat at the same time. His Navy Seal training had served him well as he held onto the rope that secured him to the boat and was able to clamber back aboard with only minor bumps and scrapes. Once standing he looked at Sam and threw him a cloth.
The younger man had no idea what it was for and said so. The chief actually laughed and said, “You’re bleeding on my deck son.” Sam had struck his nose and lips and had no idea that he was losing blood.
As the younger man saw to his injuries the chief scrambled forward to the machine gun and held onto it as he scanned the river banks and the jungle beyond. He quietly called out to his crewmen in Vietnamese but got no answer.
Sam was a little faint as he realized how much blood he had lost, but felt alright in general. What amazed him was that he wasn’t scared. He really should have been, they were in a nasty spot if the bad guys attacked. As his eyes were able to focus he could see their four crewmen still swimming with the river and moving farther away from them. “Why don’t they make for the bank?” he recalled thinking to himself.
The log had lifted the rear of the boat clear of the water as they balanced there, still hung up on it. That precarious position gave the chief a chance to inspect the drive shafts and see that while their propellers were damaged, the drivelines were still good.
It looked like another drift down the river was in order as they had to get replacement propellers in order to make it to their destination. They would be able to fire up the motors and use them sparingly to control the boat, but wouldn’t get much power from them as they were.
When Chief Black stripped off his boots and shirt to get in the water to check the boat Sam saw scars on his chest, back and arms. The man had been through Hell and never spoke of his past. He gained more respect and understanding for the older man’s sometimes gruff ways that day. He was a survivor; he did what he had to do.
The chief had Sam go all the way forward to the point of the bow to use his weight as a counter balance while the extremely strong old veteran stood on the log that had stopped them and lifted and pushed on the stern of his boat. In just two tries he had them clear of the log. Once they were clear he took a machete and hacked through the ropes holding one end of the log. He had thought of just cutting the rope before but he was afraid that the freed log would strike the propellers again and make things worse.
Sam watched the log swing to the side of the river and thought again about what he had seen just prior to impact. As the chief swung the craft into the current with little bursts of power from the engines, Sam told him what he had seen. He added, thinking out loud, “He couldn’t have seen the log from where he was all the way aft. The boat would have blocked his view.” A very dark scowl came over the old veteran’s face as he nodded and remained quiet.
About a mile down the river they caught up with the four crewmen who were just climbing out of the river onto the bank. The men called out to us in Vietnamese and moved to a good spot on a sheared off bank. As the chief maneuvered the boat next to the bank the men jumped back aboard and they were able to continue on down the river at drift speed.
The chief was strangely quiet and seemed to be doing a slow boil. When they reached his private dock up a small hidden side tributary well clear of the villagers, the ARVN crew got off the boat and got in smaller craft and paddled off.
Chief Black brought a bottle of whiskey up from below decks and a canteen cup. The older man poured Sam a healthy amount of the brown liquid into the canteen cup and then tilted the bottle up and drank deeply.
Once that ceremony of survival was completed the chief said what was on his mind. “It could be bad luck or just freak accidents, but I got a bad gut feeling” he said. Sam asked what he meant by that.
The man continued, “No one but my crew knew that we would be going up the river that first night and the attack came at the narrowest part of the river.” He added, “I think my crew was shooting high (intentionally missing) too.”
The fuel line and the hole in the tank were no accident; he had found a pick that matched the square shape of the hole in the tank.
Chief Black had been up the river past where they hit the log just a few days earlier and it wasn’t there. The crewmen jumping off the boat before they hit the log and then swimming away from either an explosion or an attack that they expected to happen clinched it for him.
These were not random occurrences, they were sabotage.
Sam had orders to complete the mission and there was no time limit set. He just thought that it was because he would be done so soon it wasn’t an issue. The latest developments proved that theory was out the window. He wasn’t sure when he would finish his task, but he wasn’t as fearful as he had been. The bad guys had thrown a lot at him and he was still in one piece. He could do it.
Chief Black took Sam below decks, opened a locked chest and withdrew a Colt automatic pistol and handed it and a box of bullets to the young photographer. “Keep this on you at all times,” he instructed.
They set about replacing the bent propellers and repairing some bullet damage as best they could with the materials on board and salvaged from a nearby similar boat. Sam had no idea if the other boat belonged to the chief and wasn’t about to ask. The older man brought a couple of pieces of plate steel from a shed and installed them on either side of the engine housing as a kind of armor plating. Sam was thinking that he might like some of that plating to get behind if bullets started flying on their next attempt.
Occasionally a small boy would come to the boat and speak to the chief in Vietnamese and then leave again. After the third time Sam had to know and asked the chief what the boy was doing. The older man smiled and said quietly that the boy was his adopted son and was keeping watch on the road for anyone coming their way.
Prior to that Sam had not entertained the idea that anyone might be actually coming after them. He wasn’t at war with anyone, but he was no longer sure that the other guys knew that. The young sailor really didn’t have a clue about the politics of Viet Nam.
Chief Black satisfied with his repairs and alterations, took a small canoe out to the main watercourse to send a message to his crewmen via a passing fisherman. It was a system that they had used many times over the last year that he had been in country.
The message was simple: come to his landing in three hours. All the way back the old veteran was upset because he had that nagging gut feeling again. He had stayed alive for his entire twenty-two year military career by always trusting his instincts.
Sam had decided to take it easy while the chief was away and lay down on the grass above the boat dock to take a nap. It was nearly a permanent nap.
The chief glided back towards the dock silently on the water, easing around the larger boat and stood up to throw his knife. Standing over the sleeping photographer was an assassin about to drop a poisonous snake on him. As the Navy Seal threw his knife he leapt from the boat and ran up the dock pulling a machete from behind his back.
Sam woke up when the big knife hit the ground next to his head, severing the head from a Krait, also known to locals as a “step-and-a-half,” because that is how far legend said that you would get before you died if bitten. The bite was always fatal; how far you could walk was unimportant.
The younger man could barely speak as the veteran stepped across him to retrieve his knife from the body of the man he had just killed. “We need to get ready to go,” the chief said calmly. All Sam could do was nod his head and scramble to his feet. He barely dared to look back as the Chief Black drug the dead man into some tall grass out of sight.
When he had pumped his fuel tanks full and topped off his extra 55 gallon drum on the deck the chief gave Sam a flak vest to put on. He also told him to make sure that his Colt was loaded with one in the chamber and ready to go. The younger man could only nod his head as the feeling that something drastic was about to happen lay heavily on him.
Chief Black went out of sight around a bend in the trail and was gone several minutes before returning at a trot with his adopted son Nyuen running along behind him. Both of them grabbed lines and cast off as they jumped aboard the boat. Sam sat on a bench seat on the boat with his Colt .45 in his hand awaiting orders.
It was nearly time for his crew to arrive and the old chief decided to go across the main channel and tuck the boat into the reeds out of sight and wait for them. A few minutes before the ARVN boat crew would be at the landing they heard a tremendous explosion, followed closely by two more.
Nyuen smiled at his father as the chief said, “I thought so” and nodded at the boy. Sam was at a loss as to what had happened and started to question his benefactor but kept quiet as the chief held a finger to his lips.
Around a bend in the river came a motor launch filled with NLF soldiers towing a smaller boat with his crewmen in it. As they reached the tributary the head man in the launch said to the crewmen (in Vietnamese) “If anyone is still alive join them like nothing has happened and report to us later tonight.”
Chief Black watched the motor launch go out of sight down the river and then idled his powerful boat out of the reeds and into the tributary following his crewmen. Once he had all four of them in sight he whispered to Sam that they were going to have to kill those four traitors or they themselves wouldn’t make it through the night. It was a terrifying prospect but events left them little choice if they were to succeed and survive.
Not wanting to make any more noise than necessary in case there were reinforcements nearby, the veteran Navy Seal once again used his weapons skills and killed the back two men with thrown knives. While he did that Nyuen shot a third man with his crossbow killing him instantly. When the last villain turned with a gun in his hand Sam had no choice but to fire his pistol. The bullet ripped through the man’s head and he fell from the boat.
Sam was in shock and scarcely believed what he had just done. He had shot guns all of his life, but never at anyone. Chief Black and his son were scrambling to strip the men of their soldier uniforms and throw the bodies in the river. They threw the clothing into the bushes where the body of the assassin he killed earlier lay bloating in the heat. There was no time to spare; they had to get away from there.
As the boat eased out into the river current in the afternoon sun, the chief was able to push the throttle and make good speed away from the area. Sam still sat on his bench with a blank expression on his face, not comprehending what had just happened to them.
Feeling safer now, Chief Black had Nyuen take the wheel while he readied the machine guns both forward and aft. As he did so he explained to Sam that he had rigged his own living quarters with explosives in case he was correct in his gut feeling that his crewmen were actually NLF (Viet Cong) and had informed on him. First the assassin, and then the explosions they heard, were the proof that the bad guys were after them. Had they not acted as they did, none of them would have survived.
When they reached the point where they had been fired upon on their first attempt, Nyuen was manning the forward gun and Sam was stationed on the aft weapon. Chief Black was all eyes as he scanned the river itself for log traps, and the river’s edge for assailants. Nothing at all happened.
Beyond that point Sam was reminded that he was there to take pictures and he got out his camera and stood by. The young photographer used all three cameras before he was done on that trip and shot all of his film.
He never really told me what all he photographed but he did say that there were power lines across the river in weird places and concrete landings on both sides of the river like heavy military amphibious vehicles might use. There were power plants and strange installations in the middle of nowhere and he shot them all.
Chief Black left the boat briefly inside of Cambodia and when he returned he was carrying a black bag the size of bowling ball. As they left the area heading south again, several loud explosions were heard. When Sam looked at the older man questioningly, the chief said, “Don’t ask.” So he didn’t. He didn’t really want to know anyway.
Sam just hoped that all of his photographs and whatever the chief did, were worth the lives that they taken. He justified the killings by saying to himself, “It was them or us.” But he never really convinced himself.
The Navy Seal had completed his assignment and worn out his welcome in the area so he was leaving too. He was able to arrange for a truck above Vinh Long and sold his boat, machine guns and all, to another American who was helping the Buddhist refugees escape from Ngo Dinh Nhu’s secret police.
Wars have always done unseen damage to people.
That quiet American with the shy smile that Chief Black gave the keys to the boat to was a Korean War veteran who never went home. He said that he couldn’t, not after what he had seen and done. The man felt that he wasn’t fit to be among innocent, unsuspecting people who would think that he was a decent human being. Sam understood what he was saying and wished that he didn’t.
The old chief jokingly told his friend that he should probably paint the boat a different color and avoid the area he used to live in as it might prove “unfriendly.” The other American said that it wasn’t a problem, he was used to not being popular.
It took them nearly four hours of driving as fast as possible on roads with huge holes and clogged with farmer’s carts, to reach Bien Hoa airport. Within thirty minutes, an all black C-130 showed up which was to carry Chief Black and his son (all though they didn’t know that part) to Thailand.
A message had been sent to the aircraft carrier by some means unknown to Sam and a mail plane was sent to pick him up and return him to the ship. He and his precious cargo of film were safely extracted from Viet Nam and returned to the relative safety of the big grey floating city.
As soon as he stepped foot off of the aircraft he was divested of his bag by the same young Ensign from Naval Intelligence that had first contacted him in the photo lab. He was allowed to shower, eat and sleep for eight hours before he was taken to a viewing room to be debriefed on every photo that he took. They kept at it for several days which angered his PHC to no end because he still had to cover the duty roster without PH2 White.
In a ceremony held at sea and with no press release or notification of next of kin, Sam was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. He was also instructed to never discuss the mission he had been on and what he had photographed there.
We didn’t discuss it…he talked and I listened; there was no discussion. He never said a word until twenty-three years after it happened and the war was long over.
On the next deployment (of his carrier) that was heading towards Viet Nam, PH2 White managed to get himself drunk enough to pass out on the beach in Hawaii and get badly sunburned. He missed ship’s movement and didn’t get out of the hospital for six weeks (that took a lot of sweet talking.)
Subsequently he was in big trouble and got demoted to Photographer’s Mate 3rd class and did 30 days in the ship’s brig upon arrival back on the carrier. He managed to miss all of the Viet Nam duty station activity and wasn’t sad about that.
Rumor had it that Sam and a certain Marine Sergeant that had a fondness for flying Cadillacs, were running a nightly crap game in the brig. I don’t know for sure as I wasn’t there… but I wouldn’t doubt it.